The Astronaut Wives Club, the summer series from ABC that depicted the race to the moon as a kind of “Desperate Housewives of NASA” ended its run Thursday with the episode dealing with the Apollo moon landing and the epic adventure of Apollo 13. What began with soap opera triteness ended in a dash of ugliness. The episode sought to remind the viewer that not everyone regarded the moon landings with awe and wonder. Some reacted to the greatest technological feat in the history of humankind with rage.
The crucial scene takes place, according to TV Fanatic, during a celebration of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Annie Glenn, her stuttering alleviated by speech therapy, notices a commotion going on outside. She sees, to her horror, a group of largely African American students shouting, with clinched fists, from a racist poem penned by Gil Scott-Heron entitled Whitey on the Moon.
“A rat done bit my sister Nell
With Whitey on the moon
Her face and arms began to swell
And Whitey’s on the moon.”
Ms. Glenn notices that a young man named Xavier is among the protestors. Xavier was a reoccurring character in the series who, like a lot of other boys at the time, aspired to be an astronaut. Now, he has apparently given up that dream. Ms. Glenn, who has transitioned from being an astronaut wife to a politician’s wife, due to her husband’s Senate aspirations, tried to talk some sense into the young man.
“Xavier, the moon landing was for everyone. So many people, all kinds of people, came together to make that happen.”
The words were a true statement. While the public face of Apollo, mainly the astronauts, was white and male, plenty of women and minorities were among the 400,000 people who helped them on the moon. Xavier, however, was having none of it.
“Mrs. Glenn, I don’t mean any disrespect, but we’ve got a bunch of white men deciding where our money goes, patting each other on the back, giving each other medals, when we’ve got a whole world down here. Don’t be like the rest of them and just look the other way.”
Annie Glenn would have been well within her rights to not turn away, but to slap Xavier in the face. The meme that the Apollo moon landings were accomplished upon the backs of the poor was one concocted by white men such as Walter Mondale and William Proxmire, using it as a way to further their own political careers. Xavier and his militant friends were just pawns in a larger political game, something not mentioned in the episode.
Indeed, just a few years earlier, Major Robert Lawrence, an African American Air Force pilot and an astronaut due to being part of the military’s Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, died in the crash of his F 104. Had he lived, he would have transferred over to NASA along with the rest of the Air Force’s astronauts and might have gotten the opportunity to walk on the moon. As it was, the first African-American to fly in space, Guy Buford, joined NASA just nine years after Xavier’s outburst. It could be said that the young man gave up on his dreams far too soon.
In any case neither “whitey” nor anyone else is on the moon and the problems that animated Xavier persist. That fact makes the scene all the more aggravating and tragic.
The main failing of the Astronauts Wives Club was that it tried to tell the story of the race to the moon, told much better in films such as Apollo 13, through the eyes of a group of what might be considered bystanders and, indeed, as depicted in the series, victims of the program. It was the pernicious Howard Zinn approach to history, through the eyes of the marginalized.
A better approach to telling the story of Apollo from the female point of view might have been to focus on some of the women who helped put men on the moon. They include Sara Howard, one of the two women engineers who worked on the Saturn V, and Margaret Hamilton. The MIT software engineer whose computer code was crucial for accomplishing the moon landing. Their stories would have been far more uplifting and would have contained less whining and soap opera angst.